Syria: a magnet for European radicalised Muslim youngsters

By Marjon Goetinck, MEDEA Institute

Yet again the issue of European Syria fighters and the violent radicalisation of Muslim youngsters is in the news more than ever. Jejoen Bontinck, the Belgian fighter who went to Syria was arrested on October 19 on alleged charges of participation in terroristic activities stimulated by Sharia4Belgium. Jejoen himself asserts that he did not join any fighting but that he has left to Syria on his own initiative to work over there as a volunteer, transporting wounded people and medication. However, testimonies of returned foreign fighters in Syria reveal that this young man has played an active role in the recruitment of fighters in Antwerp. This is against the Belgian law.

“For some time we are aware of the phenomenon of Jihadi fighters who travel from Europe to countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and later on to Somalia and Yemen, to fight there or undergo training. But we have never experienced it on such a scale as is the case for Syria”, says the Belgian EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerckhove.[1] According to the German state security 120 Belgians are currently fighting in Syria, as stated in a report that the German news magazine Der Spiegel looked into. After Germany (250) and Kosovo (150) our country has produced the highest number of fighters who went to Syria. This number is higher than initially expected.[2]

1aeab4c2-3b3b-11e3-b3a8-d5585119c427_originalNumerous European countries are concerned that these returned youngsters who joined Salafist/Jihadi militias such as the Al-Nusra Front which is associated with Al Qaeda, pose a potential terroristic threat to our society. The key question is: are returned Syria fighters such as Bontinck “would-be terrorists” who need to be punished or are they traumatised youngsters who need support and counselling?

In Belgium a federal criminal investigation has been started against these fighters in most cases. Quite justifiably one might ask if it is feasible in practice to trace the criminal acts these European fighters committed in the hornets’ nest Syria has gotten into, where journalists and humanitarian aid organisations can hardly get through. This legal approach requires a criminal investigation and an indispensable burden of proof in order to hold these Syria fighters accountable.

The socio-political debate is mainly dominated by the question why these youngsters radicalise and take up arms in a country far away from home. On the macro-level the issue of radicalisation is connected to the bipolar worldview of the “West” and Islam which intensified since the nineties and most certainly after 9/11. On the individual level we can see that youngsters who face identity problems, discrimination, stigmatisation and rejection, in combination with a lack of socio-economic opportunities, are more vulnerable to radical ideologies.[3]

In the discourse of the foreign fighters the passive attitude of the international community in the longstanding conflict is mentioned as a reason to persuade them to take action. However, the fighters do not hide their ultimate goal: the conquest of Syria and the establishment of an Islamic state where sharia is implemented. The fall of Assad is a mere intermediate step.

How can this issue of increasing radicalisation be tackled and how do we prevent more youngsters from running off? Reflections on possible repressive or preventive measures has caused a lot of ink to flow: administrative or legal approach, discourage youngsters to fight in Syria through social media, to take away identity cards, counter-radicalisation programs, prevention leaflets, online counter-discourse for radicalised youngsters.[4]

The question of how Europe can prevent radical Muslims to head out in the future is thought-provoking, since these youngsters are gripped by the Jihadi ideology and do not dread prison sentences nor bullets. Moreover the EU authorities face the huge challenge of identifying the “would-be terrorists” among the fighters who returned from Syria. Though we need to contain the influence of these extremists, it is obvious that not all of these youngsters come back as terrorists by definition. Finally, the fuss about the foreign fighters should not be playing into the hands of those who believe that each pious Muslim is a potential threat for society.

[1] See article “Facebook en Twitter moeten jihadi’s stoppen”, De Standaard http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20130605_00612393

[2] See article “Duitse Staatsveiligheid: 120 Belgische strijders in Syrië”: http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20131022_039

[3] Radicalisation, De-Radicalisation, Counter-Radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature

Review: http://www.icct.nl/download/file/ICCT-Schmid-Radicalisation-De-Radicalisation-Counter-Radicalisation-March-2013.pdf

[4] See document “Belgische federale strategie tegen gewelddadige radicalisering”: http://www.milquet.belgium.be/sites/default/files/20130924-Belgische%20federale%20strategie%20tegen%20radicalisering.pdf